Founded by William the Conqueror in the 11thC
Capital of Basse Normandie, 15 km inland from the ferry port at Ouistreham, Caen came to prominence in the 11thC as William the Conquerer’s Norman headquarters. The otherwise dreary post-war city centre is graced by a suprising collection of fine medieval buildings, several of which were used as civilian shelters during the Allied bombing raids of 1944. This vital information was relayed by the Resistance and the sites were studiously avoided by Allied pilots as they reduced 80 per cent of the town to rubble.
After the Battle of Val-ès-Dunes, when William the Bastard mopped up the Norman nobility and asserted his rights as Duke of Normandy, he married his distant cousin, Mathilda of Flanders, a liaison not approved by the Pope. William was excommunicated. Lanfranc, the renowned Italian scholar and abbot of Ie Bec, managed to get the decree lifted, and in order to reconcile themselves with the church, the couple each founded an abbey.
William’s Abbaye aux Hommes, to the west of the town centre, now houses the Hôtel de Ville (open for tours) overlooking colourful gardens. Lanfranc laid the foundation stone of the abbey-church, Saint-Etienne, with a superb Romanesque fa√ç¬µcade which could have come straight from the plains of his native Lombardy. Mathilda’s Abbaye aux Dames, to the east, has suffered more over the years, but the Romanesque Eglise de la Trinité, where the Queen was buried in 1083, remains an impressive edifice.
Around place Saint-Pierre, survivors of the blitz include the 16thC Hôtel d’Escoville (now the head office of Caen Tourism), and the Eglise Saint-Pierre. Fortunately, the marvellous Renaissance decorations of sinuous figures and foliage, urns and balustrades adorning the east end of the church were untouched when the spire was sent crashing through the nave by a Second World War shell. The restored interior changes character from simple 14thC vaulting to bursts of Flamboyant ribs flowering into pendant keystones above the chancel, and in the finely carved ambulatory chapels. On a grassy knoll above the church, the citadel ramparts enclose gardens, the Musée de Normandie (musee-de-normandie.caen.fr), and the Musée des Beaux-Arts (mba.caen.fr). The latter, housed in a medieval castle, exhibits European painting of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and an impressive collection of engravings. There is also a sculpture park.
To the north-west of the town centre, Caen’s Mémorial pour la Paix is a worthy addition to the countless war museums scattered around Normandy. By way of displays and audio-visual presentations, the ‘peace memorial’ attempts to broaden the picture and introduce a less gung-ho and accusatory style, charting the rise of facism in Germany, collaboration as well as the Resistance during the Occupation, and the D-Day landings from both the German and Allied perspectives. British visitors bound for the ferry at Ouistreham might like to stock up at the Leclerc supermarket, rue Leclerc.